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Diamonds are Forever: Section Two

       Last updated: Friday, April 2, 2004 03:29 EST



2. Meet the Slades

    “Ow! I see why you have this over-suspended monster now.” A larger bump than normal jolted Jodi against the harness. “And boy am I glad we put the equipment in those transport cases.”

    “I wouldn’t have pulled out of the driveway if you hadn’t. You want to keep doing work on our vacation, I’m at least going to make sure you can’t wreck half the lab’s equipment getting there. ‘Sides, that one weren’t nothing. Right after winter you should see the potholes we get and have to fill in afore—I mean, before—we can really drive the road well.” I kicked myself mentally. One night sleeping over in a southern West Virginia motel on the way and a few stops at regional gas stations and I was already falling back into dialect. Pretty soon Jodi wouldn’t even understand me.

    “No bigger than the one on 17th last month,” Jodi said dismissingly. I had to remember that New Yorkers are like Texans: their potholes are worse, their taxicab drivers more dangerous, and their people tougher than anyone else, damn what the facts might be.

    “Construction areas don’t count as potholes.” I responded. “Holy—!”

    I slammed on the brakes just in time to keep from going over into the ravine that now cut squarely across the packed and oiled rock-dirt roadway leading to the Slade homestead. Last time I’d been here there hadn’t been a sign of such a thing; now it yawned, a raw gash in the earth, fully forty feet from the edge I sat on to the other side, eight feet deep on the right dropping to ten or twelve on the left as it passed out of sight into the old-growth forest.

    We sat there for a few moments in silence, me waiting for my heart to stop pounding before I slowly backed the truck a few more feet from the edge, just in case. Jodi turned to me. “So you had to prove me wrong. Okay, that is bigger than the one on 17th.” She looked at the ravine with slightly wide eyes, the only sign she was going to let this disturb her New York sang-froid. “So, what, are we supposed to fill that in with our bare hands?”

    “Stay here a minute.” I reached down into the bag and grabbed the crowbar.

    I walked to the edge, so I could look to the left and right. I could see, down below, the mound of jumbled dirt, trees, and rocks which marked the slide. The thing that bothered me—really, really bothered me—was how straight and selective this was. The slide started about fifty feet up the slope, cut across the road in a perfect right angle, and ended about a hundred feet below. I poked at the dirt with the crowbar; it crumbled like normal, not too wet, packed hard where the road was. There wasn’t any sign of the usual slumping you get when the earth’s moving because it’s gotten too soggy and all. The road looked like someone had just cut a piece out of it with a giant knife, like a Bunyan-sized slice of earth pie. I listened. Not a sound except some water dripping off the trees in the fog— and the fog wasn’t common this time of year, either. Seemed like the air was colder here than ought be. No animal sounds, the critters were quiet.

    Maybe Mamma had been premature. This sure ‘nuff looked like that kind of trouble to me.

    Well, no help for it now. I studied the lay of the land. Awfully steep in parts but… I could probably make it around the upper end. Old-growth forest has some advantages, like usually bigger distances between the trees. I got back into the truck. “Jodi, get out and wait a ways down. I’ll try and drive around.”

    “If you aren’t scared to drive it, I’m not scared to ride it. And it’s chilly out there.”

    “I am scared to drive it, but I ain’t leavin’ the truck parked here neither!” I heard my voice head all the way back home. Shoot, this wasn’t good. “Look, Jodi, sweetheart, this kind of driving’s really tricky, and I’ll do better if I’m not worrying about you as a passenger while I’m trying to hold her steady on the slope.”

    Jodi rolled her eyes, then kissed my cheek and got out. I knew she would if I put it that way; it made practical sense, sure, but more importantly, it told her I didn’t doubt her courage, just my concentration.

    There was one really sticky moment when the earth near the top of the gouge started to give, but I gave her the gas and bounced clear before I could get dragged sideways. With only a couple of minor scratches to the side panels, I made it to the far side of the road. “YEEAH! Try ‘n stop a Slade that way, willya? Ha! ” I shook the crowbar at the silent woods. “Okay, honey, you can come on over. Walk around the way I drove.”

    “Walk? You need sidewalks here, Clint! This isn’t walking, this is an obstacle course!” Despite her complaints, Jodi was making her way through the woods at a respectable clip. She’d done hiking before. “I—yow! ” Her figure seemed to vanish into the earth.

    “Jodi!” I shouted in horror. Damnation, I should have made her take the crowbar! I had the whole car to protect me!

    “Calm down, Clint!” Relief flooded me as I saw her rise back into sight, brushing leaves and dirt off. “I was just being a schlemiel and looking at you instead of where I was putting my big feet. Honestly, you worry like my grandmother.” She emerged from the forest and got back into the car. “Well, so much for my perfect grooming.”

    “Don’t worry none about that.” I dropped the crowbar back into the bag and put the car in gear. “It’s their fault for not watching for the slide and preventing it.” That wasn’t true, of course, if it was really what I suspected, but either way the family wouldn’t blame Jodi for not looking her best. And as far as I was concerned, she’d look as good in jeans and a dirty T-shirt as in a formal gown.

    There were no more incidents on the way up. We crested the last hill, came around the much smoother bend that led to Slade’s Hollow, and came down through the woods into the open. “Whoa!” said Jodi involuntarily.

    I couldn’t repress a grin. “Yeah, y’all expected a couple log cabins and an outhouse, didn’t you? Admit it, the Slades don’t have a half-bad spread.”

    The Slade House really is something of a mansion, even if it is more spread out than up. Every generation adds a room or two somewhere, sorta like Lord Valentine’s Castle. We try to keep a sort of style to it, but you can still tell where one generation left off and another started. The main part used for living these days was a massive mansion whose architecture was natural-looking logs and hewn stone—sort of a magnified version of what the earlier stuff had been, but if you knew anything about building you could tell that this thing hadn’t been raised up by two farmers and their families; serious construction work had gone into the three-story, semicircular building.

    “The original house is that small squarish part, off- center,” I told Jodi, pointing. “That’s where Winston Slade put his house back in 1802. It’s used mostly for storage now. The funny addition over there is our generator shed, and on the other side’s storage for tools, stuff like that. Got farm equipment in the barn there, even though we don’t use it all that much—don’t have to do much farming, so it’s mostly just for the family.”

    “It’s a mishmash all right, but pretty, you know? And this valley!”

    “Yeah, the Hollow’s pretty. One reason old Winston chose it was because it was already clear for building; figured it was a sign and built his house smack in the middle of the Hollow, on this little rise. And here we are.”

    I killed the engine and got out, Jodi doing the same on the other side. Our feet barely touched the ground before the front doors burst open and the Slade clan came running out, Mamma in the lead as usual. She was wearing her best dress, which was a pretty lace-embroidered blue and white affair that she’d only had to let out a size or two since she got married to Father and which set off her complexion and dark brown hair. There still wasn’t a trace of gray in that thick hair. Either she just aged well or used dye that no one caught her at, but no one would have the guts to ask her.

    “CLINT! Clinton! Welcome home, boy!” She gave me the usual huge hug and a kiss on the cheek, and turned to Jodi. “And this must be your Jodi! Welcome t’ the Hollow, dear. Come on in, come on in, you’re just in time for dinner!”

    Adam clapped me on the back. “Quite a looker!” he murmured in my ear. “What’s she see in you, Clint?”

    I stuck my tongue out at him and crossed my eyes the way we used to when we were kids. “Maybe someday I’ll tell you my secret. After I’ve got her safely tied down with a ring!”

    Adam chuckled at that. The girls have always loved Adam. Standing six foot four and built like Conan the Barbarian, with the best of Mamma’s softer rounded features tempering the edges and planes of the typical Slade face, he practically had to beat the girls off with a stick. I glanced towards my fiancée, to find that Mamma had taken charge with Jodi—well, as much as anyone can take charge with Jodi—and had her inside already.

    I noticed that the gate had now rolled across the entrance to the Hollow, and heard the faint change in sound from the generators. Someone—probably Father—had engaged the electric fence.




    Father was in the big family room when Adam and I got in, trailing behind everyone else. He gave me one of his usual nods. "Clint."

    "Father." I gave him a hug, which he returned, then clasped hands for a moment.

    "Been a while."

    "Sorry, Father. I try to keep in touch."

    He nodded. Not angry. Just quiet, as usual. Father didn't talk much, thought a lot, and acted when he had to. He was actually a tad shorter than me, but built as solid as the rock of the mountain; Father didn't have an ounce of fat on him but still outweighed me by about thirty pounds. Still, almost no one paid him mind when they first met him, on account of his being so quiet.

    A booming laugh momentarily silenced everyone else. Grandpa Marlon was Father's opposite-he filled a room with his voice and his figure, standing taller even than Adam, with snow-white hair hanging to his shoulders and a rough- hewn face that reminded almost everyone of Charlton Heston. Evangeline, all long dark hair and pale face, was in the corner curled up on the padded armchair as usual, reading and watching. I didn't see Nellie or Helen, but that didn't really surprise me. Helen was going to be married herself soon, so she was probably out, and Nellie was trying to match her stride for stride, so to speak. Jonah was staring a bit too much at Jodi, but I remembered being fourteen myself, and in her New York getup Jodi was a pretty stareable sight.

    I looked at Father again. "Road was out, Father. Down near Snake Rock."

    His lips tightened. "Not the weather for slides."

    "My thought, too."

    "Fence is up. Don't worry for now." He looked at the dining room and started to head in that direction.

    Mamma noticed. "Zeke! Ezekiel Slade! No one at the table yet!" Father stopped immediately; you didn't trifle with Mamma's directions. "Evangeline, could you be a treasure and help me set the table?" She noticed Jonah. "And stop standing around like a lump, Jonah Winston Slade! You and Adam go out and get Clint's truck unpacked and get their things to their rooms."

    Jonah shook himself, looked at me enviously, and then nodded. "Yes, Mamma."

    Jodi followed them out. "Whoa, boys, there's special equipment in there!"

    Mamma seemed to think about protesting that she shouldn't do any work, but thought better of it. This was the opening I'd been hoping for. I went with Mamma into the kitchen to help her with the food-as usual, there was enough to feed an army. "Mamma..." I said, letting a warning tone creep into my voice.

    She blinked up at me. "Something wrong, Clint dear?"

    "The road was out. And it wasn't no landslide, neither."

    She busied herself with the roast.

    "You told me there wasn't any of that going on."

    "Well, dear..." she said, in the voice she used when she was trying to get around Father, "... there wasn't any of that when I told you then. Just seems to have started in the last couple of days."

    "I know that voice, Mamma! Don't try no dancin' around this one! Just what-"

    "Clinton! Don't take that tone of voice with me! I can still tan your hide, boy, and I won't need no help to do it, neither!"

    I backed down; getting Mamma mad wouldn't help. "Sorry, Mamma. Did anything happen that might have... started it again?"

    "Clint, we've got your wedding and Helen's, and ain't going to be no surprise if Nellie's and even Adam's come pretty quick. And of course we're going to do you proud, son."

    For a minute I was completely befuddled. What the heck did all that have to do with... "Oh, for the love of... Mamma Bea, you didn't!"

    "I just sent Adam down for a little extra."

    I couldn't believe this. "Mamma, you can't possibly be telling me we were broke again?"

    She was slicing the roast in perfectly even slices- something I never did learn how to do, even though I was in some ways a better cook than Mamma. "Broke? Clint, darling, of course not. But ain't nothing wrong with thinkin' ahead, is there? Takes a powerful lot of money to keep the Slades running, and what with building Helen her new house-"

    I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. I could see where this was going. The Slades had always been rich, but never learned to keep it. Spend it like water, that was the Slade way. Why learn about investment and things like that? Need more money, just go get some. I suppose I should have expected something on those lines-the last time the family refilled the vault was, as Mamma said, when Grandpa Marlon took his last trip, and besides all the living expenses there'd been additions and enhancements to the house, all the gadgets that the Slade clan loved-Mamma couldn't get enough of the home theater and DVDs (she had just about the complete Dark Shadows collection, an expense big enough to show up in the budget of any third-world country), and even Father seemed to enjoy his own time with a computer almost as much as he liked doing his woodworking-and of course putting the first Slade in a century or more through a real expensive college with no scholarship.

    " you see, Clint dear, weren't much choice. And no point putting things off, so I sent Adam off."

    "You knew I was worried about this happening! Couldn't you have waited a week or so, until after me and Jodi left?"

    "Clint. Enough, now."

    I hadn't heard Father enter. "Yes, Father."

    Father took up one platter, I took up another and followed him out. "Your Mamma is who she is. Works hard to be a Slade even though she weren't born one. Sometimes that's not all to the good. 'Taint no point worryin'. Trouble usually doesn't come here, even bad times. Scared of the Hollow. Keep her busy here, shouldn't see anything. Right, son?"

    I smiled reluctantly. Father always reminded me of Unc Nunkie from the Oz books; this was a long and involved conversation for him. "Right, Father."

    Mamma's voice suddenly boomed from the intercom she'd had strung through the whole house. "Dinner! Come an' get it!"

    Even though Jodi was an extra, Mamma had taken out one leaf from the table since Nellie and Helen weren't here, so it wasn't hard to join hands to say Grace. Jodi looked slightly uncomfortable, but the Slades knew a lot of people who weren't of the Faith, so it didn't cause a bad moment like it might with some families-no pressure on her to follow along with the prayer.

    Then we all got to eat, which was what we'd all been waiting for. The roast, as should have been obvious, was only the centerpiece. Potatoes, green beans, salad (which didn't used to be a fixture, but me and the girls pushed for it), sweet potato pie, biscuits, well, just so much food we had to eat fast before the table broke. And then there were the desserts! When Mamma set out to show off her cookin' skills , she didn't stop until you surrendered. Luckily, one thing Jodi wasn't traditional about was food; I hadn't had to face the horror of tryin' to tell Mamma that she'd have to change the way she cooked.

    Jodi had done the wise thing, and eaten small servings of everything. I just plowed ahead and ate from one end of the table to the other, and paid the price with pain in my stomach later. Then again, I always eat more when I'm nervous, and damn-all but I was nervous tonight. Bad enough I was watching them decide what to think about my fiancÎe, but I had to worry about what Adam had stirred up at Mamma's orders.




    I started to relax as the dinner wound down. Jodi got up and insisted on helping Mamma clean up. Even though cleanup's a lot easier with an industrial-sized dishwasher, there's still work to be done after a king-sized feeding like that one, and Jodi was scoring big points with Mamma by showing that, city girl or not, she'd do her share. I just hoped she didn't end up washing the actual pots and pans. Willing Jodi might be, good at cleaning dishes she wasn't. I always ended up having to re-wash the ones she thought she'd scrubbed. And if Mamma found a spot of food left on one of her big pans... well, it'd be the Big Lecture for me.

    Apparently that passed without incident, because Jodi and Mamma came out with Mamma reeling off her recipe for the sweet potato pie and leading Jodi into the big family room, where the instruments were being dragged out from the huge closets on the sides or taken down from the dark-paneled walls. The family room was just about large enough to play tennis in, but what with all the little tables, big comfy chairs and couches and all it seemed right cozy.

    "I hear tell from Clint you're a damn fine singer," Grandpa Marlon said. "The Slades always been a musical family too; mind if we indulge?"

    "No, please do," Jodi said.

    "Join in if you feel like it, dear."

    I sat down to watch and join in the singing. I liked listening, and I felt too rusty to just join in right away. Mamma was on the piano-Nellie was better than she was, but of course Nellie wasn't here-Grandpa had his banjo, Father a guitar, Adam the big standup bass, and of course Jonah had an electric guitar, as might've been expected. Without Helen, we were short our main vocals. The family did several numbers Jodi didn't know, though I could hear her start to hum along with the choruses, but when we started up "Amazing Grace", she sat up; I knew she liked that song. I'd wondered about that, like how she could perform in Handel's Messiah with her background-to which she'd replied: "Oy, don't be silly. First, I'm a terrible Jew-I eat trayf sometimes. Second, beautiful music is beautiful music. I even like Wagner, which my grandfather would be like to explode over if I said it to his face. But Wagner was a great musician, just a complete schmendrick as a person."

    I've always liked "Amazing Grace" myself; but once Jodi started singing it, you could see that even the rest of the Slades hadn't heard anything like it before. That voice, that could fill a concert hall without a single bit of electronic assistance, took the old spiritual and made it Jodi's own song of joy and thankfulness. There was a hush in the family room when the song ended, everyone else having stopped playing to hear her last notes. Grandpa spoke, finally. "Young lady, iff'n I were wearin' a hat, I'd take it off to you. As it is, I have to say Clint didn't do you justice. Sing just like the angels, you do."

    This time it was Jodi who blushed crimson. "More like a bellowing angel. I'm a belter, not a real singer."

    "Don't sell yourself short," I said. "You're the best singer I know, Jodi."

    "Can she do the glass trick?" Mamma wanted to know.


    Jodi laughed. "Don't worry, Clint. Believe it or not, singers like me do sometimes get that question. I could, Mamma Slade, but it usually only works with pretty good glasses, and I wouldn't want to break anything valuable."

    "Nonsense! I can always get more glasses-why, with all these younguns I've had through the years, I've gone through more'n one set of them anyways. But I've always thought that was just some fancy trick on stage."

    "Well, it takes just the right pitch, and if your voice is off, it won't work. But if you really want..."

    Mamma went to the cabinet and got out one of the leftover glasses from the set she'd had when I was young; yeah, I remembered breaking one of those. Only two left. "That one good enough?" she asked.

    Jodi tapped the rim of the glass while everyone was silent. "B-sharp," I said automatically. She nodded. "In my higher range. But I think I'm loosened up enough..."

    She put the glass down on the table, took a deep breath, and then opened her mouth wide, letting a single note build upward from a gentle hum to an almost deafening single-toned sound that escaped being a shriek only by sheer purity. As it built, you could hear an answering undertone, as the glass' resonant frequency was found, building, rebuilding upon itself, a positive feedback loop that caused the crystal to vibrate, blur, and with an abruptness that startled all of us even though we knew what was happening, it virtually exploded in a shimmer of transparent shrapnel.

    "HooooEEE!" Grandpa and Mamma said at the same time.

    "Wow!" Jonah exclaimed.

    Jodi giggled. I grinned. "Luckily you use your powers for good and not evil."

    "What about you, Clint?" Father said, as Mamma and Evangeline set about cleaning up the shattered glass; they wouldn't let Jodi help, of course, since Mamma had asked her to do the trick in the first place. "Haven't made a note yet."

    "Aww, I'm too rusty, Father."

    "Fiddlesticks, Clinton!" Mamma retorted, going to the trash bin. "Jonah, you get Clinton his fiddle."

    Jodi looked at me. "That's right, you mentioned you used to play violin some."

    "Some?" Adam laughed. "You know that song about the Devil? Iff'n the Devil came to Kentucky, it'd be Clint he'd be after."

    "And he'd whip me good, too," I said, taking the fiddle from Jonah since Mamma weren't taking no for an answer. "But what the heck."

    The lights flickered. A moment later I heard the backup generator come online. The family relaxed, but I could see Jodi was surprised by the change; for a moment, she'd seen the family in a completely different way. Every single Slade had stood, poised for action, and both Grandpa Marlon and Father had long iron bars in their hands-taken from concealed locations under their chairs. "Dang it all, Adam!" Grandpa said. "Who's forgotten to make sure the main generator's supplied again?"

    It had broken the mood, for the time at least. I went to help Adam put more fuel into the generators. "Grandpa forgot that we drew almost twice normal load all day," Adam grumbled. "Mamma's been working everyone overtime. Shouldn't have had to refill until tomorrow."

    "'Don't think ahead, can't keep ahead,'" I quoted at him, checking the oil levels; I noticed that one of the generators was a new model, put in since last year; Father wasn't taking any chances.

    "Yeah, yeah, I know. No excuses, just results." He tightened the cap down. "Okay, now we're done."

    We went back inside, where Mamma had gotten Jodi to take her on in chess. I hoped she wasn't suckered into a bet; the only person who ever beat Mamma was Grandpa Marlon, and I more than half suspected that she let him win sometimes because his pride couldn't take the constant humiliation of having his daughter-in-law take him to the cleaners every time they played. I'm not that bad, but Mamma could beat me while she was busy watching TV. I studied the board, realizing that I'd actually never played Jodi. They were already past the point where I tended to concede to Mamma; looked like either Jodi was a heck of a lot better than I'd guessed, or Mamma didn't want to embarrass her by beating her too soon. Seeing the way Mamma was pursing her lips, though, I had to grin. Nope, she wasn't taking it easy; Jodi was making her work for it.

    "Mate in five moves," I joked; Mamma knew I couldn't see more than three moves ahead even if I worked at it.

    "Six," Jodi said absently. Mamma blinked and stared at her, then bent over the board with renewed concern. I repressed a snort of laughter, as I could see the little twitch at the corner of Jodi's mouth that she always got when she was having someone on.

    As that game was probably going to last a while, I went and joined Evangeline and Jonah at the entertainment center for a bit, taking turns beating the heck out of each other in the latest Virtual Fighter game. Just as Evangeline kicked me out of the ring, I heard Mamma's clear voice: "Well, now, I know when I'm beaten," followed by the clicking sound of her king being tipped over.

    "Well, if that don't beat all," Marlon muttered from his armchair.

    Evangeline finally spoke. She generally was even quieter than father. Turning to me, she said, "You keep her."

    "Oh, believe me, I mean to."

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